Passing it On

I stand in the stern of the skiff and Naphtali is in the bow. “Mom, could I run the skiff for the rest of the pick?”

“Sure,” I reply instantly, my internal eyebrows rising. Finally, it’s happening. “Wanna take it now?” I shout over the engine., careful to keep my face neutral. We are heading to the next net, the bow plunging between waves. She nods her head yes and makes her way back between the totes and skiff sides.

Naphtali, 14, now stands in my place in the stern, I move to the center of the skiff. She has been commercial salmon fishing with her father every day of every summer since she was nine, but she has resisted this move to the stern. Running a 60 horse outboard means you pilot a 26 foot aluminum skiff around swirling nets on the open ocean. It takes finesse, fearlessness and strength.

She grips the outboard handle tentatively, and uses her body as I do, as a stabilizer for the left arm. The men don’t need to do this; they have enough body weight and mass to absorb the intense vibration and the force of propulsion. As we approach the next net, she slows.

We come in for the landing on the net and I see we won’t make it. The wind is pushing us over the line.

“Sorry!” she calls as she reverses.

“That’s okay! Let’s go again!” I reply, facing out to the water, not watching her, giving her room.

We approach again. She slows the engine, idles us close to the corks, and shifts into neutral for me to lean over the skiff side and lift the net out of the water, but we are still five feet short.

“ARRRGG! Which way do you turn this for reverse, mom?”

“The other way. Turn it the other way!” She turns the arm sharply toward herself, but we turn the wrong direction.

Again we miss. Just feet short, the wind blusters the bow over the other side of the corks.

“Mom, maybe you should do it!” Naphtali calls, frustrated.

“No. You can do it. “ I will not tell her again how to do this, I decide. This is a knowledge that comes not from language or shouted directives; it comes only through the hands, the shift of her feet. Her body must begin recording all the ways of moving a craft through the waters she will face.

For me, this started when I was twenty, when I married a fisherman from Kodiak, Alaska and stepped into this ancient, new world of salmon and fishing. That was twenty-eight years ago. I wasn’t taught, I simply did it because I could, because my help was needed in the crush of fish, because the question of who I was---woman, girl, man, wife, fisherman---didn’t matter then.

When we are done with our final net, Naphtali makes one more request; “Mom, can I take it to the tender?”

I smile casually, as if I didn’t know what this means. “Sure, go ahead.” She tightens her grip on the outboard handle, stands straighter and rounds the corner of the island, face set in stoic confidence, the “stern face” her father wears, her grandfather wore, all the men wear as they command their vessel from the stern. The face I wear as well.

We head for the Sierra Seas, the larger boat that takes our fish and delivers it to the cannery. The other skiffs from our fishing operation are there, six of them, with two crewmen in each, all tied together waiting to offload their fish. We see them before they see us. This is it---center stage. I glance up at Naphtali, frozen in an inscrutable aplomb. Then they hear us, and glance in our direction. She is ready. This is her debut, her coming out. The Alaskan fishergirl’s equivalent of a southern girls’ debutante ball. It’s public now---Naphtali is running the skiff. Everyone sees and knows. She is no longer a child or a crewman or a girl; she is a fisherman.

What am I giving to you, daughter? I wondered that day. Though most of her training has been under her father’s eye and hand, I am part of this too. What am I passing on to her? A skill that will bring her deeper into the heart of fishing than she has ever been. There is a sense of foreboding, perhaps what all parents feel as they begin to teach their teenagers to drive a car. You know that you are giving your child the means to grow up, get a job, be independent, but it is always so much more than that. You are giving them the keys to death, to accidents. In their two hands, for the first time, they will grip space and time on a wheel, and they will test all that can be done in these dimensions.

Out here, the consequences are no less. Running a skiff makes you captain of a small ship, presiding over one or two crewmen. It means you earn the right to travel your piece of boat straight into a convulsed, tide-ripping storm of ocean and in the midst of that storm, to fish and work as if there were none. It means you will hold other people’s lives in your hands. It means you will work eight to fifteen hours every day through every summer. It means you will be a girl in a world of men, and expected to work like a man no matter your size. It means that just as you are becoming a woman, Naphtali, you are becoming a man.

I don’t remember which day I became a woman on the water. The years blur together. But I became a man first. It happened in a blow, piloting a small skiff alone through 50 knot winds. Or maybe when the nets were so full of fish we could not lift them from the water. We picked them in the water, then, throwing hundreds, thousands behind us into our skiffs for days, until we could no longer stand. Or on a night when told to drive a skiff full of fish around an island and a reef in the black dark, not knowing where the rocks were, and still going. Or the times I refused help from a crewman though I desperately needed it, my body near breaking. On the nights we took up our nets, me, the smallest, choosing to pull the lead line, the heaviest line of all.

Then, one day I became a woman again. I don’t remember the day. Maybe when out in the skiff with a baby ashore, my breasts filling with milk as the skiff filled with fish, knowing there was a helpless other who needed me more. Maybe when I started accepting help, then asking for it from my 6’2” crewman who was twice my weight, choosing to preserve my back for all its other uses. Maybe when I looked beyond the fish to the crewman beside me to ask him how he’s doing with this work. Maybe when I cried that night alone in the dark, running the skiff around the reef, praying for help. Knowing then that anything I did was not done by strength at all.

Growing up in New Hampshire, if I had thought about being a mother someday and passing a heritage onto my daughter, I would not have imagined this----the two of us out in a skiff, in orange raingear, slimed by fish guts, blood and kelp, the mountains and ocean rising up around us. I would not have imagined us killing fish instead of garnishing them; snatching salmon from watery jaws, shouting sea lions away from our nets, picking kelp at midnight, assessing a man’s worth by body size and strength. Though I grew up in the unisex 60’s and 70’s in a nearly genderless household—with three brothers and two sisters and a mother who built houses, fireplaces, and furniture—somehow, in a rosy glow, I place the two of us in the kitchen. There we are, within warm buttery walls, surrounded by appliances with dash boards and buttons just waiting to be controlled by the lift of our fingers. Engines that whirr to life with a touch rather than a full-body yank on a six-foot pull cord. We are wearing matching aprons instead of matching raingear. Standing side by side while I demonstrate the roll of the pin, the fold of the dough instead of the slashing of kelp and the roll of jellyfish from the nets. Betty Crocker is there. We speak of literature, The Heart of Darkness, The God of Small Things as we braid a mound of challah. I teach her the science of yeasts and pie crusts, the brilliance of Indian curries. She learns to savor the artistry of food as I do, the unending beauty of colors and textures and flavors---this, the only domestic art that I love.

None of this has happened. Naphtali, like her brothers, enters the kitchen only to eat. Instead, when I can leave my other labors, writing and the work of a house and children, I gear up, join her, and head out to sea.

Naphtali, now 15, and Noah, my oldest son,13, are my crew tonight. Though they both run skiffs now, I’m taking Duncan’s place on the water and in the stern tonight while he works ashore on the generator. It’s a long run down to Seven-Mile Beach, the furthest of our eighteen nets. The water is troubled by a NE wind, the sky grey. Noah sits quiet, head bobbing in the bounce of the waves, but at peace with this work. Naphtali has a headache and closes her eyes the whole trip down. I think her period has started. She is tired and grumpy. This is their third pick of the day; they’ve already worked eight hours on the nets this morning and afternoon. I wonder what kind of mother I am. I want to send her home and to bed with an aspirin and hot chocolate instead of taking her back to the salt mines. I wish I were home myself. But this is our work.

Halfway through the nets, she perks up, and between fish, we manage a small skirmishing dance, arm-waving steps on the fish-slippery floor of the skiff. We sing songs from Fiddler on the Roof, My Fair Lady, “The rain in Spain . . . to da da da da,” urgently redeeming the time, transcending the work, its slow mind-numbing drag across our spirits. Noah does not sing with us. He does not need to.

Later, after delivering our fish to the tender we find out the guys in the other skiffs called us “the cute skiff.” Naphtali is angry to be singled out, to be seen as different from the men. Mostly to be seen as what she is: young, pretty, a girl. None of which has anything to do with her competence on the water. She wants only equality right now.

“Naphtali, be cute as long as you can,” I advise her, knowing in my own body the tyranny of equity.
She glares at me.

“I’m tired of being around men all the time,” Naphtali complains. I go out with her on the next pick. She is 16 now, takes her place automatically in the stern, which makes me crew. Her face is deeply tanned from weeks out on the water; her cheeks are red, eyes a vivid green. I sit in front of her on the seat, partly protected by a chest-high plastic tote that holds our fish and ice. I feel small beneath her. She is taller and stronger than I am now. I gave up arm wrestling her last year. Our catch so far is a paltry dozen or so red salmon, beautiful and rich to eat, but hardly enough to pay for our gas this day. We have plenty of time to talk. We talk about the books we are reading. She has just finished Isabel Allende’s My Invented Country. I tell her about The Myth of the Perfect Mother, and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. We decide to trade books if the fishing stays slow. Above us the mountains of the Alaskan peninsula hover like clouds over the water. The sun has warmed the wind to a gusty SW 25, just a day breeze, but enough to riffle the waters and peel their waves to white. Spray sluices us in languid, regular splats. A rogue wave suddenly hits us with fervor, a full face and shoulder wash for both of us. Naphtali turns her head and expertly hawks and spits a mouthful behind her. “I’m getting better at spitting,” she announces. I nod my head, understanding.

She is the only female out on the water every day, at all hours. At 16, she trains and gives orders to new crewmen five to ten years older than her. I watch her as she works, how quickly she surveys the way the net is hanging, the position of the running line, the tidal currents, the wind . . . In an instant she knows what to do and tells me in clipped sentences what she expects of me. “Don’t’ roller it—tides’ too strong. Put the longer pole in the bow. Grab the running line.” I comply, do all that she says. She is the expert now; I am the dilettante who comes out only as needed. No one would know we were mother and daughter, or, if looking from afar, would reverse our identities. Perhaps would even think, father and son.

When the nets are finished, we join our compatriots, the six other skiffs of brothers and hired crewman. Upon some signal invisible to me, all seven skiffs move from a lazy circling to a full-bore race to the tender. Naphtali leans forward, starting off in second place, bouncing over the top of the waves, then slicing through the troughs with that same mix of urgency and calm, while the other skiffs edge beside her. She wins, two minutes later raising her fist in the air hooting in triumph as she sails into the anchorage. I sit beneath her wondering, how has this happened so quickly? And how much of this is my fault?

Sixteen years ago I carried a newborn up the gravel path to the house we were still building. A house on a remote island in Alaska, with no running water, no plumbing. An island inhabited only by my husband Duncan and I, and now this baby. Until then if anyone had asked me to describe “helpless”—I would have reached for a metaphor, helpless is like...But now I held the meaning itself in my arms, the word incarnated in the flesh of this being. And in service to her, I had given over all my strength to become this as well: I was her food, her arms, her legs, her sleep. My body was hers, my mind, my heart----all hers.

Several times a day I would lay her on her stomach. She would strain to lift her head a few inches to gawk about her, holding her bobbing gaze as long as she could, then collapse into a wail of frustration. I would let her cry for a minute, then move her on to the next “station”---an infant seat, where she would bounce content for three minutes, gaping at the gallery of cut-out magazine faces, until the next cry and the move to the next station, on the floor above the Sesame Street gym. The rotations were interrupted only by nursings, walks on the hillside, where I could watch the men out on the nets, my former life, whatever other diversion I could devise.

By the fourth week of motherhood, both my concept and practice of Strength had changed utterly. Competence and muscle were nothing against this baby. Time felt the enemy, the ever-lengthening barrier between this helpless infant and who I hoped she would become someday: an upright, articulate, fully capable being. I began to glimpse then what was required to deliver her to that state: nothing short of a long slow courage to persevere through days, minutes, years of minute attendance.

Through these long hours alone, with Duncan out fishing, and no roads or cars, no escape from the house and the island, no contact with the outside world, I wished for magic, some kind of Faustian exchange that would re-write the laws of the universe and spin us forward, effortlessly leapfrogging the exhausting work of love. The outcome seemed so distant and theoretical. How did I know that this baby would become a girl and then a teenager and then, unthinkable, an adult---a woman? And what would that mean? That she would stay with me here on shore or that we would fish together, she and I, or that she would be my younger self, and work side by side out on the water with Duncan? I didn’t know.

Neither did I know then that she would be the only girl. That over the next fourteen years there would be five more---all boys. Had I known, would I have taught her differently, so she would not scorn the kitchen, a life onshore tending babies and gardens instead of wrestling saltwater and killing fish?

This summer Naphtali turns seventeen. I don’t know how many more summers she’ll return with us to this island to fish. I chose this life; she was born into it. The thought of being alone here with all boys and men saddens me. When she leaves, what will she take with her? What do other mothers pass onto their daughters? Great-grandmother’s china, Aunt Mary’s handmade baskets, family recipes. I have none of these.

I want to give her something that is hers, and ours, alone, that cannot be given to my sons, that was not given to me. Something distinctly female, that will ease and further her way down the path of womanhood. It has taken me a long time to become a woman out here; I had to find the way myself; a winding path between nursing babies, gutting fish, changing diapers, and spitting into storms. I wish its benefits and joys upon her much sooner than they came to me. It is not fishing that I want to give. It was never really mine to bestow. It has always been Duncan’s. And it is much more hers now than mine; it is already her lifelong work, even if she stops tomorrow. If she continues, she will have to sort out how to be a woman in this world and work, and decide how much it matters. I have struggled with this for almost thirty years.

It’s 7:45 pm, time to ready for the evening pick. Naphtali is going out with Emily, her best friend, here for a month. A respite from her usual company of men. Naphtali’s bathroom ministrations for fishing usually mean a business-like slathering of sunblock on her face, her hair wound and pinned up beneath a plastic shower cap then a bandana around it as protection from fish slime and blood. Her wardrobe: a thermal undershirt, sweatpants, wool socks pulled up over her ankles. Then the step into rubber hip boots, the pull of clownish orange and yellow bib rainpants, a foam lifejacket zippered over the top, vinyl gloves to her forearms. All body shape erased.

This night both girls emerge from the bathroom with the usual wardrobe, but with their hair exposed, in pony tails, their faces transformed with rich red lipstick, huge hoop earrings, gypsy scarves, thick mascara and eyeshadow. Laughing at this exaggeration of their own beauty, and laughing at where they will take it---out into the skiff, where gender is stolen---they trip down the hill to the beach, steps light with anticipation. Under her arm, Naphtali carries a digital camera and an unopened box of tampons. She has told me what they are up to. In honor of her birthday, they are designing their own digital cover of Seventeen Magazine. They will feature an outhouse contest, a fit-and-fabulous exercise routine, and an article highlighting the tampons: “Menstruating in a Man’s World.” Out on the water, they take turns standing in the bow for the photo shoot.. Behind them, kelp dried on the skiff sides, fish at their feet, they flash a glamour-girl smile, finger pointing to the tampons.

It is just what a mother hopes as she carries her newborn daughter home from the hospital—that her daughter will exceed her. She is stronger than I am---she is becoming a woman sooner than I did. I pray for her the courage to stay strong; the resolve to keep singing when everyone else is silent, to dance in the skiff. She has this already. More, I pray for her what she has not yet dared: the courage to be weak, the courage to ask for help, to cry when she needs, to bleed when she must, to work beside men as a woman. And most of all, if she cannot, for the courage to walk away. I will help her pack. And I will bear her absence---alone now in a world of fish and men---with all the strength of a woman.